Things You Should Know About Autonomic Dysfunction

Autonomic dysfunction is a broad term used to describe many issues with the autonomic nervous system. It may occur for a variety of reasons and it may take your doctor some time to determine the exact cause, but it’s important to do so in order to properly treat it. Here are some things you should know about autonomic dysfunction.

There Are Many Names for This Type of Issue

Autonomic dysfunction can also be called a few other things, including dysautonomia and autonomic neuropathy. This is in part because only some autonomic dysfunction issues are neuropathic, which means that the issue is a condition of the peripheral nerves. Autonomic neuropathy tends to refer to issues affecting parts of the body outside of the central nervous system, not issues affecting the brain or spinal cord. It’s important to be aware of the different names in case different doctors refer to your condition by different terminology.

Certain Risk Factors Exist

There are certain risk factors related to the development and potential severity of autonomic dysfunction. Having a risk factor does not mean you are guaranteed to develop a condition, it just means you have a higher chance of developing it than someone without that risk factor, so you should practice preventive measures if possible. If you have one or more risk factors, your doctor will likely incorporate various questions and tests into your regular physical exams to check for signs of the development of autonomic dysfunction. Some risk factors include diabetes, drugs with side effects that can cause nerve damage, some autoimmune diseases and high blood pressure.

Symptoms Can Vary Greatly

Because autonomic dysfunction can affect so many parts of the body, symptoms can vary a great deal. Your symptoms will correspond to the part of your autonomic nervous system affected by dysautonomia, which can be divided into a few categories. Thermoregulation includes sweating too much or too little. Circulatory symptoms include exercise intolerance, dizziness and weakness. Sexual dysfunction may include such symptoms as vaginal dryness and erectile dysfunction. If you have urinary issues, your symptoms can include stress incontinence or excessive urination. Gastrointestinal issues can include heartburn, nausea and loss of appetite.

There Are Two Main Choices for Treatment

While each type of autonomic dysfunction requires a different type of treatment, there are two main categories: management of specific symptoms or treatment of the underlying cause. Doctors try to treat the underlying cause first if possible, such as treating diabetes to prevent further nerve damage or switching a patient to less aggressive therapies for cancer treatment if possible. However, not all autonomic dysfunction has a clear cause and not all causes can be treated directly. This is where symptom management with medications, lifestyle changes and physical therapy is important.

It May Occur Due to Underlying Conditions

While autonomic dysfunction can occur sporadically, it’s more likely that there is an underlying condition causing it. There are several potential primary causes, including Parkinson’s disease, postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS), strokes and multiple sclerosis. There are also many potential secondary causes, such as nutritional deficiencies, amyloidosis, certain cancer treatments, toxicity, physical trauma and various bacterial or viral infections, including HIV and Lyme disease.

Testing Is Necessary for Diagnosis

It’s important to test a patient to determine whether his or her medical complaint is caused by autonomic dysfunction. Most dysautonomia tests are non-invasive, consisting of reflex testing, imaging, cardiovascular testing and physical examination. These tests are designed to show doctors how well your autonomic nervous system is functioning. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may want to test your heart rate, blood pressure, sweat volume, skin temperature, thermoregulation and digestion. They may also request urinalysis and ultrasounds.

If you’re dealing with autonomic dysfunction, it’s important that you tell your doctor about it. He or she should be able to help you schedule tests to determine the cause and make treatment decisions. Your treatment regimen will depend on the cause of the autonomic dysfunction and any other medical issues you may be experiencing.

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